“Corruption”, a cautionary tale of Big Media in the 21st Century

The cast of CORRUPTION on a dimly lit stage
The cast of CORRUPTION. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens are at a desk
Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s starting to become a fading memory now, but back in the early 2010’s a major media scandal erupted. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul, had started to buy up major media outlets, print and electronic, in the United States and the United Kingdom. Under his governance, two of the UK’s biggest tabloid papers, the Sun and the News of the World, utilized any means possible, including surveillance and hacking computers and mobile phones, to gather private information.

In turn, this could be used to persuade government leaders, Scotland Yard, media celebrities, and members of the royal family to bow to the wishes of the Murdoch empire. The papers’ leadership claimed to be doing this for the enlightenment of their readers — but were they?

Corruption, the new play by J.T. Rogers now playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, is based on the true story of how the Murdoch interests were exposed in the UK by a small team of independent journalists led by a Member of Parliament (MP), Tom Watson. As played by Toby Stephens, Watson, who himself had been slandered by News of the World reporters under editor Rebekah Woods (Saffron Burrows), at first set out to bring down Woods and her tactics, but soon realized that what happened to him was just the tip of a blackmail scheme with a stranglehold at many levels of the government and the police.

Watson’s crusade is helped by reporters Martin Hickman of The Independent (Sanjit De Silva) and Nick Davies of The Guardian (T. Ryder Smith) and his loyal Parliamentary staffers. He gets financial support from Max Mosley (Michael Siberry), a wealthy eccentric who’d had his own run-ins with British tabloid journalism. Arrayed against them are Woods, with a steely demeanor and a fervent belief in the power of the press; James Murdoch (Seth Numrich), Rupert’s son and head of the Murdoch media enterprises in the UK, who sees newspapers as a dying breed; Tom Crone (Dylan Baker), chief lawyer for the Murdoch interests; John Yates (Smith, in a dual role), head of Scotland Yard’s Special Inquiry Squad; and Glenn Mulcaire (Baker, in a dual role), a private investigator working as an information gatherer for the Murdochs who provides crucial information to Watson’s team as well. Also working against Watson at a personal level is his wife Siobhan (Robyn Kerr), whose doubts, fears, and inability to withstand the media pressure on her family force her to leave Watson and go into seclusion. An unexpected ally for Watson is New York Times reporter Jo Becker (Eleanor Handley), who having heard of his crusade is convinced to investigate independently.

Director Bartlett Sher inspires his cast to breathe theatrical life into their based-on-reality characters, creating a thrilling experience even though the fates of the people involved are already public. Over Michael Yeargan’s sparse scenic design, based mostly on a collection of tables, chairs, and desks which the cast configures into various meeting rooms, offices, and homes, hovers a halo containing video screens posting a nearly non-stop flow of archival and staged news reports and interviews – an apt metaphor for today’s news services, surrounding us and monitoring us, an unsleeping eye looking at everything and anything but providing little in the way of context or understanding.

Corruption, an overwhelmingly powerful yet human production, serves as a warning of the ongoing conflict between corporate greed and media responsibility to the standards of journalism. It suggests that the triumph of greed is not inevitable but will take dedicated effort to oppose. I strongly recommend seeing J.T. Rogers’ Corruption in the intimate space of Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre while you still can.

Corruption is presented in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through April 14th, 2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to lct.org or telecharge.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.